How to win friends and influence people ... through creative conflict

The secret to successful conflict is knowing what you want to get out of the engagement before the opening bell.

Some time ago, my then local dry cleaner shredded the back panel of two of my dress shirts. I’m not talking about a slight tear. I mean this was full post-bear-mauling Leo DiCaprio. Obviously, something went very wrong in the back room of the Bradlee Dry Cleaners.

But when I brought them back for restitution—or at the very least a heartfelt apology—the proprietor said that I had dropped them off in that condition.

I went Hulk-O-Rama so fast and furiously that I popped the collar button off the shirt I was wearing.

Didn’t matter. He wasn’t budging. As I walked out in defeat (three shirts to the wind, as it were), I vowed never to step foot in that shop again! Nine years later, they went out of business, which I like to think I had some small hand in.

Fast forward to last week when, running late for a breakfast meeting, I saw that my freshly dry-cleaned shirt had a large grease stain running down the left sleeve from the elbow to the cuff. I grabbed a second shirt and it had a stain in the same pattern on the same arm.

Was I angry? You betcha. But this time I was ready. All I wanted from my dry cleaner was an acknowledgement that they stained my shirts. And in order to get that, I took the issue off the table.

“Hey, these two shirts both came back with these identical stains.”

                “Hmmmm.”

“Now, I’m not sure how they got there, but I would imagine it happened during the dry cleaning process. It’s possible, of course, that I brought them in with these stains.”

                “Hmmmm.”

“It doesn’t matter how it happened, really. I just wanted to bring it to your attention in case you had a mechanical problem that you should check on before this happens to someone else.”

                “I’ll refund the cost of cleaning these two shirts.”

 Victory!

Now, if I had centered the conflict on who actually wrecked my shirts, her natural reaction would have been to defend herself. And—once our respective perspectives were established—any forceful argument I made would be met by an equal and opposite reaction from her.

Call it Newton’s Third Law of Emotion.

But by setting aside the very point I needed to win—and even interjecting a smidgen of her perspective—I completely de-fanged her opposition. And then I sealed the deal by suggesting that I only brought the issue up out of concern for her other customers. Check and mate.

They may not have paid for the shirts they ruined, but they at least fessed up topossibly having had something to do with it. And that’s gold, Jerry. Gold!